If you are someone currently helping children develop their souls, seven warning signs can tell you if you’re tilting off course. Run through this list periodically and consider which areas might be interfering in the child’s spiritual development or sending negative messages.
- Spiritual sharing that is not age-appropriate or personality-appropriate (i.e. scaring or confusing children).
- Modeling behaviors that are different from we teach children to do (i.e. not practicing what we preach).
- Refusing to admit our own mistakes, hiding our faults, blaming others (i.e. lack of honesty and taking responsibility).
- Assuming that young children aren’t interested in learning about God (i.e. silence on the subject of God).
- Waiting to talk with children about God until they have done something wrong (i.e. creating feelings of guilt and judgment around God).
- Teaching by our actions that many other things in life are more important than God and spirituality (i.e. ignoring God and prioritizing other areas of life–sports, activities, hobbies, romantic relationships, social events)
- Forcing children to agree with whatever we think about God (i.e. forgetting that a child has the right to make up his or her own mind).
If you’re thinking that’s a lot to remember and be responsible for, you’re not alone. Helping children develop spiritually is not a one-person job. Fortunately, you can turn to resources outside the family like the connection with a faith community.
I get to drive one of the children in my extended family (age 6) to her weekly ballet class. It’s fun to have a few minutes each week of one-on-one time with her. I try to think of one question that might lend itself to a spiritual—or heart—conversation, amid the funny or imaginative chatter in the car.
This afternoon I think I’ll ask her, “What did you do to help someone today?”
Several years ago, the Barna Group published an incredible statistic. It found that less than 10% of families have spiritual conversations in the home. This includes families who are a regular part of a faith community!
One real practical action
Here’s a practical action we adults can take to contribute to childhood spiritual development. Ask a question that makes them think, and search themselves for an answer. “What do you think heaven looks like?” (or “If there’s such a thing as heaven, what do you think it looks like?”) With a question like this, Glennon Doyle says:
“[Kids] are looking inside to see what they’ll find and as soon as they find it: there it is – their hands fly up and they say: “I know I know!!” And then they pull something out of themselves that they didn’t even know was there. Look! Look what I found inside of me! And we smile or nod, and either way we are saying: wow, that is so cool. I didn’t even know [you imagined] that. I didn’t know that about you!”
Sometimes the reason we don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives is that we don’t ask.
- Who helped you today?
- If you could change anything about me, what would it be?
- Who in your class seems lonely?
- What is something you know how to do that you could teach others?
- If you could switch places with one friend for a day, who would it be?
- What is something you’ve always wanted to ask me?
Tweetable: Step up your efforts to strengthen a child’s spiritual development this year. It takes planning, but not much planning, and an opportunity for 1 and only 1 thoughtful question. More here. Click to Tweet
Spiritual development is indeed a journey. Dr. James Fowler’s well-reasoned book, Stages of Faith, gives valuable resources for adults responsible for the spiritual development of children. How and when does faith develop? What should we know about the developmental stages?
I cannot improve on Maxine Handelman’s summary of Dr. Fowler’s empirical research into the spiritual development of children, so I offer you the “best of” here:.
What is faith development?
“Faith development is about making meaning of life’s significant questions, adhering to this meaning, and acting it out in his or her life span.Faith is a common pursuit and quest of all individuals. Faith development theory provides a place for God and religious ways of being without mandating them.”
How and when does faith develop?
“Faith formation occurs in relation to others. It can be in relation to parents, church-temple-mosque, [sacred texts], school, friends or any group of people with whom one interacts. Just as one’s intellectual abilities, motor skills and social behaviors change over the life span, so does one’s faith. Views of God will not remain the same. Faith can be nurtured, strengthened and enhanced.
What should we know about the developmental stages of faith?
- Stage 0 (birth to 2 years) — Early learning about the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, the child will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and God.
- Stage 1 (ages 3-7) — Faith is learned mainly through experiences, stories (including holy texts), images, and the people with whom the child comes in contact.
- Stage 2 (mostly in school children) — Children have a strong belief in justice and reciprocity. They experience God as almost always personal, with characteristics such as goodness, mercy, care and love.
- Stage 3 (arising in adolescence) — Characterized by the development of a personal identity and conformity to their faith community.
- Stage 4 (usually late teens to late thirties) — A stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith.
Awareness of the general passages of faith can provide an anchor as we look back at our own lives, and look ahead to what children have in store.
Tweetable: Awareness of the general passages of faith development can provide an anchor as we guide children in theirs. Click to Tweet
My new book, Child-centered Spirituality: Helping children develop their own spirituality, is now available on Amazon – just in time for the holidays!
Where did Grandma go when she died?
Why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening?
Many parents have experienced a child asking difficult spiritual questions– usually at inopportune moments. While we stumble around trying to think of an answer, we feel inadequate… and sometimes startled by their questions. If you’re like most adults, you try your hardest to avoid thinking much about questions like these. So why on earth is a child asking you about them?
We talk with our children about the importance of school work, about physical health, about how to navigate social difficulties. We even talk with them about sex, drugs, and internet safety… or if we don’t, we know we should.
So why do we find it so difficult to talk with children about God?
Whether you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, foster parent, or other caregiver, this is a book to help you engage with the children in your life about their spiritual needs.
Purchase your copy in paperback here.
If you prefer the Kindle version, you can purchase it here.
If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you know the spiritual development of a child begins and ends with the choices of the child. We cannot (and should not try to) force a child into a particular belief or spiritual practice.
Yet we can walk beside them to provide support their their journey of discovery. They want trusted adults to act as sounding boards and coaches as they work out their spiritual questions and ideas.
Specifically, what is the adult’s role?
In this next series of blog entries, you can browse 8 different components or categories within human spirituality and select ways to engage with the important children in your life.We will look at one each week for the next eight weeks.
8 Components of Spirituality
- Personal transformation
- Authentic relationships
- Generous living
- Spiritual responsiveness
- Sacrificial service
- Guiding others
- Community transformation
- Experiencing God
For each of these general areas we’ll provide lists, specific examples, and ideas you can take and use to strengthen the child’s human spirit. You decide which are best for you.
Cull our lists.
Recognize you may need to adapt certain items to fit well with your spiritual tradition or beliefs. For example, if sacred writings are mentioned, which ones do you mean? Or if showing hospitality or caring for the earth aren’t values or important parts of your tradition, are there other values you substitute for them?
Above all, remember never to force.
The adult’s role is to model, initiate conversations, and provide resources and opportunities. The adult’s role is not force or indoctrination.
Take your time.
Spiritual development takes a lifetime and cannot be crammed. Be careful not to push kids where they’re not ready. A checklist of ideas is not something you can go through in a month or a year.
Chart your path forward.
Focus more mindfully on spiritual development now and your decisions can improve the child’s future.
Tweetable: New series directs adults to the priority moral values a child needs for spiritual proficiency. Click to Tweet
Skill #1: Attentiveness: Notice spiritual activity in children.
Attentiveness is used most often in the context of everyday life, but don’t overlook its presence here:
- Awe-inspiring activities
- Peace in hard times
- Out-of-control events
- Coincidences and unexplainable events
Skill #2: Active listening: Engage the child in conversation about it.
- Dreams — “As my son was going to sleep he said he was afraid to go to heaven because he didn’t know what it would look like. I told him to ask God to show him while he was asleep.” Later, his mom listened to the dream and asked if it took away her son’s fear.
- Awe-inspiring activities — When a teenage girl was asked what she liked about surfing, she said: “For me, just being in nature and feeling the ocean as this elemental force, and then doing some sort of meditation. I think yoga is a good starting point.”“
- Peace in hard times: “I was 6, maybe 7, when my pet cat died. I wanted to know where my cat went, why she couldn’t come back, etc. I was completely satisfied with my parents’ answers of “She went to Heaven.” God is watching over her now.” I felt peace. I remember it distinctly. That’s when I realized that there was someone watching and caring for us that we couldn’t see or touch, but they were out there.”
- Out-of-control events: “During the pandemic things were out of control and I didn’t expect anything positive to come out of it. My mother helped me recognize some good things did come out of it.”
- Coincidences and unexplainable events: “My teenage daughter called me to tell me that she had pulled a 10-year-old up from the bottom of the pool where she lifeguards. The next morning she said, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night, Ma. I kept thinking about that girl and what might have happened if I hadn’t rescued her.’ And I responded, ‘You did something extraordinary. You should feel incredibly good about yourself.’”
Skill #3: Acceptance: Discern if the child wants information or empathy.
Pay attention to this distinction. Accept it either way and respond accordingly. The child in Situation 3 needs information about her cat. The child in Situation 5 wants understanding.